“Junior skaters should be developed and treated separately as juniors, and we should help senior skaters to extend their careers.” Interview with Chi Hyun-jung coach of Haein Lee, Junhwan Cha and Chaeyeon Kim
Interview with Chi Hyun-jung coach of Haein Lee, Junhwan Cha and Chaeyeon Kim.
source: mfocus.kr dd. 22d June 2023 by Jimin Park
In 2023, a new era has dawned for South Korean figure skating. Both Cha Junhwan and Lee Haein achieved second place in the world’s top competition, the World Championships. They continued their success at the World Team Trophy, where the strongest six countries in figure skating compete, and secured an honorable 2nd place overall. Alongside these two skaters throughout this remarkable journey was their coach, Chi Hyun-jung.
Such growth did not happen overnight. Since South Korea’s debut at the World Championships in 1972, it took 37 years until the prodigious talent Kim Yuna claimed victory, and 51 years to achieve success in both men’s and women’s events. The ascent of South Korean figure skating to its current position required the relentless efforts of coaches who dedicated themselves to nurturing talent day and night. Chi Hyun-jung is one of those coaches, with many years of experience teaching numerous national representatives, including Park So-yeon, who performed on the Olympic stage in 2014.
Chi Hyun-jung’s expertise bore fruit last season. From the 2022 ISU Junior Grand Prix Series to the Junior/Senior Grand Prix Final, the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, and the World Championships, she accompanied rising stars like Lee Haein, Cha Junhwan, and the promising talent Kim Chaeyeon. Recognizing her contributions, the Korea Skating Union awarded Chi Hyun-jung the Best Figure Skating Coach Award in 2023.
Despite the joy of receiving the award, Chi Hyun-jung wasted no time in preparing for the new season, starting in June. At the Genesis Ice Rink, we had the opportunity to meet and talk with Chi Hyun-jung, who continues to work tirelessly for the upcoming year.
How and when did you start figure skating?
Chi Hyun-jung: I started when I was five or six years old. I tried piano and other things, but I didn’t like them and preferred playing at the skating rink. So, that’s how I got started. I started skating more seriously around the first grade of elementary school, around the age of six.
Coach Chi Hyun-jung began her skating career at the now-disappeared Dongdaemun Indoor Ice Rink. In 1985, when Taereung Athletes’ Village transformed its swimming pool into an ice rink, they relocated for training. However, the situation remained challenging as Taereung Ice Rink closed in the summer, maintaining the facility. During the 1980s, when overseas travel wasn’t easy, figure skaters had limited opportunities to go abroad for international training, either relying on government support or using their own savings. Coach Chi Hyun-jung faced a similar situation.
Chi Hyun-jung: In our time, we just went to competitions, but it wasn’t a situation where we could achieve international results. At that time, the skating rinks closed during the summer because there was no ice. So, we trained outside or did physical training indoors. If the situation allowed, we would go for training abroad. So, it was more difficult to skate back then. There were no spectators or fans. Now, when we compete, the arenas are full, and the support during competitions gives the kids more strength.
You’ve been a pioneer in going for overseas training since your time as an athlete. Your students also go for overseas training at least once per season. What does overseas training mean for you and your students?
Chi Hyun-jung: I consider it as a means of personal growth for me. Of course, it also prepares the kids for the next season, but if I keep repeating the same things, the skaters might feel like, “She’s just saying the same things again.” Besides, not all kids are the same. Some things work for some skaters but not for others. If someone captures something that I can’t see, their advice might be the key to changing things. Even I face situations where things don’t go as planned. From the perspective of someone who listens to the assist, I used to go for overseas training occasionally. When you talk about something, you need to have the confidence that you are right. But if you’ve said it ten or twenty times and it still doesn’t work, you start to wonder, “Am I doing something wrong?” It’s about having some confidence in yourself.
Coach Chi Hyun-jung has laid the foundation for athletes to train in good environments both domestically and internationally through flexible collaborations with foreign coaches. She coached alongside Frank Carroll (USA), who was Michelle Kwan’s coach, and young choreographers. Currently, she co-coaches Cha Junhwan with Brian Orser (Canada). She doesn’t differentiate between online and offline or across borders.
Among Korean coaches, you have a lot of collaborations with foreign coaches. Are there any difficulties or pros and cons in coaching when other coaches provide different forms of guidance, which might confuse the skaters? How do you adjust in such cases?
Chi Hyun-jung: I don’t think there are any difficulties or pros and cons. After all, we are all going in the same direction, and we want to achieve the same results, but the way we express it might be slightly different. When there is a difference in guidance, the skaters might get confused, so in such cases, we talk about it. For example, if Brian (Brian Orser) and I watch videos separately and say, “Doesn’t this look a bit different?” then we come together to discuss it and convey a unified message to Junhwan in the end.
Coach Chi Hyun-jung produced four national representatives during the 2022/2023 season. Especially, Kim Hyungyeom, Lee Haein, and Kim Chaeyeon showed remarkable technical progress and stability throughout the competitions. When asked about the differentiated secrets behind her students’ remarkable growth, she chuckled and said, “I don’t think there’s anything special.” She then emphasized her coaching direction, which revolves around “trust” and “adapting to each skater.”
Chi Hyun-jung: I don’t think there’s anything special or differentiated (laughs). First, I show them videos of themselves and ask, “This is how I see it. How do you feel? What do you think?” We discuss a lot together, and they gradually realize things on their own. We combine their insights with my opinions, and that’s how we proceed. In fact, (for skaters who have grown to a certain level), we have to do it this way. It’s different for younger skaters. You can’t do that with young kids. Young skaters need clear guidance like “do it this way.”
But when they become high school students, and they become national representatives, trust has to be built between us. They have to trust me, and I have to trust them. The most important thing is to adapt to the skater. We need to bring out the best in them in the best way that suits them, and that’s how we can achieve the best results. It’s about aligning with the skater; it’s about what’s best for this particular skater, not about what worked for me or someone else.
As for mental care, there’s no secret or specific method because I’m not a psychological counselor. But when I think about what I’ve experienced, every skater is very different. Some skaters need to be motivated, others need comfort, and some need to be given confidence. Some sensitive skaters should be left alone, and some just need straightforward advice without any interference. So, it’s about understanding each skater’s situation and responding accordingly.
For example, with skaters like Soyoun (Park), who tend to get very nervous during competitions, I avoid talking about the competition during the entire period. We only discuss things unrelated to the competition on the skating rink. We don’t talk about the competition at all.
That’s probably why you always talk a lot before the competition starts.
Chi Hyun-jung: In some cases, I talk to help them focus, and sometimes I just reassure them. There are times when I simply tell them, “You can do it.” When they are not feeling good, I might give them advice on their posture or something like that.
Usually, when you see other coaches, they always have the same basic advice, but I tailor my words to the situation. Sometimes, on the day of the competition, the skater might be too hyped up because they are in good condition. If not careful, they might make mistakes in unpredictable places. So, I remind them not to stay focused even if they feel good. I provide those kinds of words of encouragement.
You mentioned that each skater has different characters. How do you coach Junhwan and Haein differently?
Chi Hyun-jung: For Junhwan, I continuously instill confidence in himself. When we watch videos, I tell him, “You’re fine.” I keep reinforcing his self-confidence and remind him that he is doing well. Of course, if something is really wrong, we talk about it, but I try not to show him bad videos. I want him to remember the good ones. It’s a kind of image training. Additionally, I worked on continuously improving his physical fitness.
As for Haein, during Skate America, she wasn’t in bad condition or anything, but she suddenly caught the flu and couldn’t even get out of bed. She was in a lot of pain, and we were debating whether she should withdraw or compete until the last moment. Eventually, she managed to compete. After the French competition, she had about three weeks, and her physical strength declined, and it was quite tough for her.
After returning, we went through the rankings and the overall, gradually moving up step by step. She had the will to do it herself. She wanted to go to Worlds and the Four Continents.
Figure skating generally starts around the age of 7, and it is a young sport with its prime forming in the late teens to early twenties. As a result, the coaching staff is also relatively young compared to other sports.
However, there are clear drawbacks to this. One significant drawback is the absence of regular school life that inevitably occurs after starting full-time training as a professional skater. This means missing out on the first social experiences that come with being a student and lacking proper guidance to lead them down the right path. Chi Hyun-jung was the “adult” who guided these teenagers during this critical phase.
During your time as both a skater and a coach, when was the most challenging period for you?
Chi Hyun-jung: As a skater, it was probably when I was doing well, but then the younger skaters started catching up, and that brought a lot of stress.
As a coach, it was also similar. When the kids were struggling mentally, figuring out how to help them was challenging. I’ve experienced situations where I kept giving them feedback, but their skills didn’t improve. It was tough when a capable skater was not able to perform well due to psychological reasons or stress.
In the case of male skaters, progress often came later. During this time of waiting for a breakthrough, they may go through slumps or puberty, and there could be stress. How do you take care of your students during this period of waiting for a breakthrough?
Chi Hyun-jung: For male skaters, the changes during adolescence are not as drastic. They do experience some changes, but it’s not as intense as with females. Also, their ‘likes and dislikes’ are clear. So, I try to match their moods or listen to what they have to say and then offer my input, like saying, “Yes, I understand, but I think it would be better if you did it this way.”
On the contrary, the puberty period for female skaters is challenging. Some of them don’t listen at all, shut down emotionally, and refuse to communicate. It’s more subtle with girls. During this time, they undergo physical changes and also have to deal with dieting, which adds a lot of stress. While boys gain strength even if their body shape changes, girls lose power and gain fat. It’s a natural characteristic of females, but it’s not easy to handle. As a result, injuries may occur, and coping with injuries is even more difficult.
That’s probably why the Korean national team members are relatively young. The senior skaters in international competitions are getting older, but some of the key skaters participating in senior international events are not part of the national team. I’m curious about your opinion on this situation and the need for change.
Chi Hyun-jung: We have already been discussing this with the federation. We had meetings and proposed, “Junior skaters should be developed and treated separately as juniors, and we should help senior skaters to extend their careers.” We formed the national team with skaters who could compete in the Junior Grand Prix. But as a result, we created a situation where the older skaters can’t handle it psychologically. They need to train and maintain their careers for a longer time, but when they barely get 9th or 10th place, it’s challenging to tell them to keep going. It’s just a slight difference, but it’s significant. So, we suggested separating junior representatives from senior representatives, but implementing such changes proved to be challenging.
Last season, the 2022/2023 season, was the best year in the history of South Korean figure skating. Kim Yuna’s successes have finally bore fruit on the barren land she had gone alone. In 2014, there was not even a single skater in the Senior World Championships Women’s Singles who could achieve the minimum technical score, leading to the forfeiture of one spot. In 2023, Korea had now become a perfect “Team Korea” with pairs and ice dance included. Both women’s and men’s singles consecutively set records. Naturally, the attention from the media was high as it marked the first time they entered the World Team Trophy. While the team enjoyed the event, the coaches had a slightly different perspective.
Chi Hyun-jung: (The World Team Trophy) It was the first time for us. We intended to enjoy it, but from my perspective, it was still a competition. It looked fun seeing the kids cheering for each other, but in the end, we still had to determine who came in first, second, or third. Personally, I wasn’t stressed about the results, so I was a bit more at ease, but there was still a certain level of stress as it was a competition. We couldn’t just ignore that and have fun.
We just said, “Let’s not come in last.” That’s how we started.
“We made it to the event? Good. But for dance, it was their first time directly moving up from juniors, and for pairs, it was their debut competition. There’s nothing we can do about that, but let’s try not to finish last, okay?”
Not only in the senior category but also in the junior category, Korean skaters achieved good results in international competitions. What do you think is the strong point that connects Korean skaters on the international stage?
Chi Hyun-jung: The overall level of our kids has significantly improved. If you look at junior competitions overall, our skaters perform well. Our kids have improved overall, but it didn’t happen all at once. They started from 4th or 5th place and then gradually moved up to compete for 1st to 3rd places. I think this trend will continue.
However, the basic skating skills of Korean skaters are somewhat lacking. They excel in choreography, but they tend to develop their technical skills (jumps) quickly, sacrificing skating skills a bit. If we can bring both together, they can achieve even better results.
From a technical standpoint, especially when it comes to improving jump execution, do you prioritize that?
Chi Hyun-jung: It felt that way. Japan and Russia often say, “First, you need to master the basic skills, then the technique will naturally be good. You’ll be comfortable.” However, we say, “Let’s jump quickly and do it fast!” So, the order got a bit switched. Because we focus on doing things quickly, sometimes there might be a slight gap when they move up to the senior level.
So, for skaters like Chaeyeon, before the start of the season she worked a lot on skating basics with the program. Since her jumps were already strong, it worked as a plus, leading to good results. If you only have jumps but lack in other aspects, even if you execute jumps, your Grade of Execution (GOE) might just be 1 or 2. But you want it to be 3 or 4.
It’s really bad if you fall on a jump and there’s nothing else to see. We want to give the impression of, “Yes, I fell on a jump, but I skated so well.” Jumps can have mistakes, so it’s not always going to be 100%.
It’s becoming a competition for high-difficulty jumps, including the triple axel, it’s becoming intense. In this situation, is it better for your students to focus on going all-in with difficult jumps, or would it be more advantageous to aim for higher GOE and technical score in well-executed jumps, or to earn points in non-jump elements? I’m curious about your coaching direction.
Chi Hyun-jung: Younger skaters tend to focus on high-difficulty jumps. Russia and Japan will also continue to do triple axels and quadruple jumps. For elementary school-level kids, I think going for high-difficulty jumps is appropriate.
For skaters preparing for the Olympics, if they get injured, it becomes a really bad situation. For female skaters, I think it’s better to focus on raising GOE, composition, and overall execution. Injuries are an ongoing issue, and you’re likely to get hurt fighting through it. Even if you don’t get injured, using the same body part repeatedly can be an issue.
What about male skaters?
Chi Hyun-jung: Junhwan is currently doing a quadruple flip, and he’s trying to add another quad. He’s been practicing landing it for two to three years. We initially removed it to focus on raising the program’s overall quality, but this season, we’re preparing to reintroduce it. For male skaters, they can’t do without quads.
As a coach and an adult, Chi Hyun-jung’s most prominent virtues are likely trust and listening. As a leader, she has accompanied many athletes on the stage of their sports dreams, including the Olympics and numerous other competitions. Even when the skates were broken, forcing them to give up on a competitions, or when a mouse chewed through the wires, causing a two-hour delay in a competition, Coach Chi Hyun-jung’s power of communication was what encouraged the athletes to rise and overcome. In the realm of figure skating, where the main age group of athletes is young, she served as the essential “adult” figure in terms of personality.
The happiest memory for her as a coach was the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships. Coach Chi Hyun-jung, who raised the next generation’s queen and king, Lee Haein and Cha Junhwan, looks forward to nurturing new talents and creating a joyful history for Korean figure skating in the future.